Search Results for 'silent'


City Lights

It would be unfair to mix the silent comedy features and shorts together in any kind of ranking. The shorts are funnier per foot of film, while the features have stronger characters and more satisfying plots. It may seem odd to list only Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd features, when there are so many comic talents to choose from. Even so, it would be best start at the top and work down to the next rung, which would include Harry Langdon, Laurel and Hardy, and Raymond Griffin. Walter Kerr’s book The Silent Clowns is the best introduction (other than the films themselves) to this most creative era of film comedy — so far.

(1) City Lights (1931; directed by Charles Chaplin) On DVD

(2) The Gold Rush (1925; directed by Charles Chaplin) On DVD

(3) Seven Chances (1925; directed by Buster Keaton) On DVD

(4) The General (1927; directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman) On DVD

(5) The Kid Brother (1927; directed by Ted Wilde and J. A. Howe; starring Harold Lloyd)

(6) Modern Times (1936; directed by Charlie Chaplin) On DVD

(7) The Freshman (1925; directed by Sam Taylor and Fred Newmeyer; starring Harold Lloyd)

(8) Sherlock, Jr. (1924; directed by Buster Keaton) On DVD

(9) Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1927; directed by Charles F. Riesner; starring Buster Keaton) On DVD

(10) The Kid (1921; directed by Charles Chaplin) On DVD

La Jetée

When I think of classic short films, I usually recall the silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd. Or I might remember my favorite cartoons from Walt Disney, Dave Fleischer, or Chuck Jones. Of course, there are many other fine short films that span the decades.

One of the best shorts from the 1960s is Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962). It’s remarkable for several reasons. First, it tells an absorbing story that builds to a never-to-be-forgotten climax. Second, it’s technically innovative in a way that’s perfectly in keeping with the subject matter. And third, it shows you don’t have to spend a lot of money on a film production — if you have the imagination to transform the technical deficiencies into creative assets.

I’ve never encountered anyone who wasn’t impressed by this superb 26-minute film, yet strictly speaking, it may not quality as a motion picture. With the exception of a few seconds in the middle, the story is told entirely through still images. That had to save a ton of money, yet Marker was able to create the illusion of movement by panning, fading, cross-fading, and sequencing the images to match the narration, emotionally charged music, and occasional sound effects.

The story, which involves time travel and the persistence of memory, is an ideal fit for this approach. The protagonist is selected for the time travel experiments because he retains fragmentary images from the past and may be able to fill in the gaps (similar to the audience having to mentally fill in the missing film frames).

This short will appeal to a broader audience than just science fiction fans. It has a wistful romanticism that’s as vital to the story as any of the more fantastic elements. Though Marker is an American, he filmed La Jetée in France. As a result, it’s much closer in tone to Françoise Truffaut than to Hollywood sci-fi.

A newer version of this short replaces the French narrator — and English subtitles — with an American narrator, who I assume is Chris Marker. The out-of-print DVD titled Short 2: Dreams had this version, which was Marker’s “preferred cut.” I prefer the original version, though either would qualify as one of the best shorts made during the second half of the twentieth century. The Criterion DVD and Blu-ray have what are essentially both versions. You can run it with either a French or English narrator, and add in English subtitles to supplement the French narration.

You may have read about La Jetée because of its connection with Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995). Gilliam explains in his La Jetée DVD commentary that 12 Monkeys was “inspired by” rather than “based on” the short. The screenwriters used it to generate ideas for their script. Gilliam, however, chose not to see it until 12 Monkeys was completed. After finally viewing La Jetée, Gilliam proclaimed Marker to be a genius.

La Jetée
(1962; directed by Chris Marker; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $39.95 (DVD) [both discs includes Marker's Sans Soleil]

Monday, September 1 at 7:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Gold Rush

For many years, I considered The Gold Rush (1925) to be my favorite Chaplin film. It has everything you would want in a great comedy: thrills (sliding off the edge of a cliff), romance (Georgia Hale is strikingly beautiful), imagination (a pretend dance using forks and potatoes), pathos (the tramp waiting for Georgia to attend his dinner), and intelligent humor (almost everywhere you look). These days I would choose City Lights (1931) as Chaplin’s best, but only because it’s more polished and consistent. I would still choose The Gold Rush as the best introduction to Chaplin — as long as the print quality is good, and it’s not the 1942 reissue version where Chaplin speaks all the titles and provides a running commentary. Unfortunately, the print quality is usually better with the 1942 reissue over the 1925 silent version.

Though fiercely original, Chaplin could still be influenced by other filmmakers. In his book Charlie Chaplin, author Theodore Huff describes how Chaplin may have absorbed ideas from other films:

The close to hysterical suspense of the scene of the cabin half over the cliff may show the influence of Harold Lloyd who started a vogue for comedy-thrill sequences in his “Safety Last” and other skyscraper pictures. It is Chaplin’s first use of such effects but, imitated or not, his inimitable touches make it his own. The happy ending of the film, which in some ways breaks the mood, may have been inspired by the epilogue of Murnau’s “The Last Laugh,” which was then influencing picture-making all over the world.

Chaplin considered The Gold Rush to be “the picture I want to be remembered by.” Huff estimated its production costs to be in the neighborhood of $650,000 (compared with $300,000 for The Kid). It was money well spent. The Gold Rush was one of the highest grossing films of the 1920s, bringing in $2.5 million domestically and another $2.5 million internationally. Chaplin received about $2 million, which was an extraordinary amount of money at the time.

Based on the listed running time (89 minutes), it appears that TCM has scheduled the 1925 version this time around. The Blu-ray and DVD packages from Criterion include both versions, which gives you a chance to experience the film from two different perspectives.

The Gold Rush
(1925; directed by Charles Chaplin; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Thursday, August 14 at 11:45 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Awful Truth

The Awful Truth (1937) is one of the least appreciated of the top screwball comedies, in part because director Leo McCarey isn’t as well known as directors Frank Capra, George Cukor, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, or even Howard Hawks. His best comedies include Let’s Go Native (1930), Duck Soup (1933), Six of a Kind (1934), Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), and The Awful Truth. These comedies share a relaxed feel, seamless construction, and almost unequaled comic timing. McCarey was quite willing to improvise on the set, yet his films stay focused, which isn’t always the case with directors who improvise. Of course, it helps if you’re working with top talent. McCarey directed some of the best work of The Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Mae West, and Eddie Cantor.

McCarey shifted away from comedy in the 1940s. During the war years and into the 1950s, he specialized in competently made, often sentimental dramas, such as Love Affair (1939), Going My Way (1944), The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), and An Affair to Remember (1957). Throughout his career, McCarey brought a human touch to his films that was both sincere and discerning. According to Andrew Sarris’ book The American Cinema, “Jean Renoir once remarked that Leo McCarey understood people better than any other Hollywood director.”

The Awful Truth is based on Arthur Richman’s 1921 Broadway play of the same name, which was also the basis for a 1925 silent film and a 1929 sound film. The same story was remade as a musical in 1953 with the oddly appropriate title, Let’s Do It Again.

Because McCarey could make the characters so believable and likeable, almost from the start, he and screenwriter Viña Delmar were able to infuse the dialogue with an intelligence and grace you rarely see this side of Lubitsch. Here’s an example of the lines given to the main actors, Cary Grant (Jerry Warriner) and Irene Dunne (Lucy Warriner):

Lucy: You’re all confused, aren’t you?
Jerry: Aren’t you?
Lucy: No.
Jerry: Well you should be, because you’re wrong about things being different because they’re not the same. Things are different except in a different way. You’re still the same, only I’ve been a fool… but I’m not now.
Lucy: Oh.
Jerry: So long as I’m different, don’t you think that… well, maybe things could be the same again… only a little different, huh?

If you like comedies such as Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Philadelphia Story (1940), His Girl Friday (1940), and The Lady Eve (1941), you’re almost sure to like this one. It’s a rare treat.

The Awful Truth
(1937; directed by Leo McCarey; cable & dvd)
Sony Pictures
List Price: $19.95

Wednesday, August 13 at 6:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Sunday, September 14 at 12:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Random Harvest

No matter how many classic films you’ve seen, there will always be films that escape your notice. They may no longer exist (most silent films, for example). There may be rights issues (the long version of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, for example). Or you didn’t know enough about them to actively seek them out (hence this site’s tagline: so many movies, so little time).

I hadn’t seen Random Harvest (1942) until about six years ago. I had forgotten what a competent director Mervyn LeRoy was and had neglected to look for his other films. Admittedly, his output is uneven, but any director responsible for the likes of Little Caesar (1930), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Hard to Handle (1933), They Won’t Forget (1937), Waterloo Bridge (1940), and Mister Roberts (1955; co-directed with John Ford) is worth further study.

As a sentimental romantic drama, Random Harvest is surprisingly restrained. This is a film that tugs on the heartstrings without treating the audience as though it has a collective IQ of 50. The various twists and turns are laid out carefully, and even when you know where it’s heading, the movie remains intellectually and emotionally satisfying. The plotline is important, so do refrain from reading too much about this one until you’ve had a chance to see it. Above all, don’t read the back of the DVD case, which gives away half the plot (what were they thinking?). The story is based on the novel by James Hilton, who is best known as the original author of two other Hollywood adaptations: Lost Horizon (1937) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). That these three creatively successful films were directed by three different directors speaks well of the narrative strength of the novels.

The casting of the two leads is another plus. Ronald Colman and Greer Garson were highly regarded by their contemporary audiences. Today, they’re barely known by the general public. If you’ve ever wondered just how talented Colman and Garson were, this film should answer that question in spades. Bottom line: If you tend to avoid sentimental Hollywood dramas, give this one a chance. The performances, script, and direction place it firmly in the don’t-miss category.

Random Harvest
(1942; directed by Mervyn LeRoy; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Friday, July 25 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Out of the Past

It’s interesting to note that my two favorite film noirs of the 1940s — Double Indemnity (1944) and Out of the Past (1947) — also have the two best femme fatales (Barbara Stanwyck and Jane Greer). Which one is the deadliest? If both were in the room, I would say keep your eye out for Greer. She’s much better at convincing those around her that she couldn’t possibly be doing what you think she is doing.

In Out of the Past, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) describes Kathie Moffat (Greer) as “a bit cold around the heart.” Jeff knows he is being conned, and that he is going to have to pay big time for it, but he can’t help himself (just like Walter Neff in Double Indemnity).

This was Mitchum’s first starring role, and he wasn’t the first choice. Both John Garfield and Dick Powell turned down the part. This is arguably Mitchum’s best role and a perfect launching pad for his career. Kirk Douglas plays Whit Sterling, who sends Jeff to look for Kathie, his mistress. Daniel Mainwaring (using the pen name Geoffrey Homes) wrote the screenplay based on his novel, Build My Gallows High.

Director Jacques Tourneur expertly guides the viewer through the various plot twists and double dealings. Tourneur is best known for his previous collaboration with Val Lewton on the atmospheric horror films Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), though Out of the Past is probably his finest film. He came by his talent naturally. His father was Maurice Tourneur, a well-respected Hollywood silent film director.

Here’s a trivia question for you. When the film was remade in 1984 as Against All Odds, what part did Jane Greer play? She was cast as the mother of her original character.

Out of the Past
(1947; directed by Jacques Tourneur; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Friday, July 25 at 2:00 a.m. eastern (late Thu. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Grand Illusion

What can I say to convince you to see Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937), if you haven’t already seen it? (If you have already seen it, you won’t need convincing). This quote from Orson Welles should do it, “If I had to save only one film in the world it would be Grand Illusion.” On The Dick Cavett Show, Cavett once asked Welles what his favorite films were. Welles answered, “Grand Illusion and something else.” The story goes that large numbers of people tried to track down this other film, they thought was titled Something Else.

Grand Illusion is a truly great film. It’s enriched by Renoir’s sincere compassion for humanity. It has outstanding moments of comedy and tenderness. There’s wartime intrigue and even a hint of romance (not easy for a story that centers around an escape from a prisoner-of-war camp). The title unlocks some of the thematic layers in the film. There’s the illusion the aristocracy will be able to return to their former roles after WWI. There’s also the illusion that the equalities of war will remain completely intact after the war. Renoir embraced the democratic movement that swept away the autocracy, but at the same time, he was nostalgic for the manners, decorum, and traditions that would be lost. Renoir’s best films view human behavior as complex and even contradictory. Employing improvisation even in a tightly structured film such as this one, he strived for a realism that still felt natural and spontaneous.

This film is also notable for its appearance by silent film director Erich von Stroheim, whose realistic style influenced Renoir and motivated him to become a filmmaker. It wasn’t until late in the production schedule that Renoir learned he would be able to cast Stroheim in the part of Captain von Rauffenstein. In his autobiography, titled My Life and My Films, Renoir explained how Stroheim affected both the role and the film:

His part, which at first was a very minor one, had been greatly enlarged because I was afraid that, confronted by the weighty personalities of Gabin and Fresnay, he would look like a lightweight. In art, as in life, it is all a question of balance; and the problem is to keep both sides of the scales level. That is why I took liberties with von Stroheim’s uniform, which was quite out of keeping with my realistic principles at that time. His uniform is authentic, but with a flamboyance quite unsuited to the commander of a POW camp in the First War. I needed this theatrical façade to counterbalance the impressive simplicity of the Frenchmen. There are instances of stylization in La Grande Illusion, despite its strictly realistic appearance, which takes us into the realm of fantasy, and these breaks in illusion I owe largely to Stroheim. I am profoundly grateful to him. I am incapable of doing good work unless it contains an element of the fairy-tale.

Ultimately, what makes Grand Illusion a powerful film is its optimistic message that differences can be bridged through goodwill and understanding. It isn’t a pro-war film because it doesn’t glorify war, and it’s not even an anti-war film, though Renoir in 1937 paradoxically declared himself to be both a pacifist and strongly opposed to Hitler’s aggression (a paradox he addressed in one of his first Hollywood films, This Land Is Mine). For Renoir, war is simply the ideal theatrical stage to show how men can overcome their differences in class, language, race, education, and politics.

Grand Illusion
(1937; directed by Jean Renoir; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (out-of-print DVD)
Lions Gate
List Price: $29.99 (Blu-ray)

Saturday, July 19 at 2:00 a.m. eastern (late Fri. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Captain Blood

Captain Blood (1935) is the first of three exceptional swashbuckling films from an unlikely trio: director Michael Curtiz, composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and actor Errol Flynn. While the other two films — The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940) — are better known, Captain Blood is in many ways the superior film because the trio hadn’t yet settled comfortably into the format.

Known to be hard working, but temperamental, Curtiz was an odd choice to direct a pirate movie. The genre hadn’t been popular since the Douglas Fairbanks films of the 1920s, though it experienced a sudden resurgence in 1935 with the release of both Captain Blood and Mutiny on the Bounty. This was Korngold’s first original film score, and it forever associated his name with classic action-adventure films. The three films just wouldn’t be the same without Korngold’s rousing scores. And 26-year-old Flynn wasn’t supposed to play the title role that propelled him to fame almost overnight. Robert Donat had been the first choice based on his success the previous year in The Count of Monte Cristo. He turned down the part because of poor health.

The studio wasn’t able to spend a lot of money on this project. If you look closely, you’ll notice the ships in the battle scenes aren’t full size. Instead, Curtiz and cinematographer Hal Mohr used miniatures, process photography, and clips from the 1924 silent version of The Sea Hawk.

Though clearly a product of Hollywood, this film has an international pedigree. Curtiz had fled his native Hungary in 1918 when the communist regime nationalized the film industry. Korngold, the son of a well-known music critic, had emigrated from Vienna earlier in 1935. Flynn grew up on the Australian island state of Tasmania. And co-star Olivia de Havilland was born in Tokyo, though her parents were British.

Captain Blood
(1935; directed by Michael Curtiz; cable & DVD)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Friday, June 20 at 9:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Merry Widow

Ernst Lubitsch had no equal when it came to crafting sophisticated comedies. One of the first Hollywood directors known and revered by the public, his “Lubitsch touch” represented the pinnacle of intelligent humor. His version of The Merry Widow (1934) still towers over other comedies.

As Herman G. Weinberg pointed out in his book The Lubitsch Touch, “This time the first ‘Lubitsch touch’ came right under the credit titles as a magnifying glass sought in vain to find the tiny mythical kingdom where the action takes place.”

Ostensibly based on the operetta of the same name (which Erich von Stroheim used as the basis for his 1925 silent film), Lubitsch and screenwriters Ernest Vajda and Samson Raphaelson essentially threw out the plot and started from scratch.

Jeanette MacDonald is the wealthy widow who owns 52 percent of every cow in the small country of Marshovia. Maurice Chevalier is the playboy prince who is given the task of wooing her back from Paris, so her riches will remain in the kingdom.

Supported by an outstanding cast of character actors — including Edward Everett Horton, Una Merkel, Sterling Holloway, and Hermann Bing — The Merry Widow is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face and a feeling of nostalgia for a golden age of screen comedy.

I’m happy to report that this movie is finally available on DVD, though it’s available only as a Manufactured on Demand (MOD) disc. That’s a DVD-R format. As a result, it may not play properly on some PC-based DVD drives or DVD recorders. I had no problems playing it on my PC-based DVD and Blu-ray drives, though your results may vary. This MOD disc should be issue-free with most standalone DVD and Blu-ray players (the kind you connect to a home TV).

The video and audio quality on this disc is first rate. Warner has done an excellent job of transferring this film at a suitably high bit rate (8000 kbps for the video and 192 kbps for the audio). The image had plenty of contrast and detail, and the sound (especially important for the musical numbers) was clear and never shrill. It looked great projected onto a 100-inch screen. Highly recommended.

The Merry Widow
(1934; directed by Ernst Lubitsch; cable & dvd)
Warner Archive Collection
List Price: $18.95 (available as a Manufactured on Demand disc from WarnerArchive and WBshop)

Tuesday, June 17 at 10:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Singin' in the Rain

Is there anyone into classic films who doesn’t like Singin’ in the Rain (1952)? Given that 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds had never danced before, and the script had to be written around a group of songs with little in common, it’s a wonder (and a tribute to those involved) that this would turn out to be the greatest Hollywood musical.

Reynolds received six months of intensive dance training before the production began. She had already shown her singing ability and plucky appeal in her previous films (most notably in Two Weeks with Love, where she sang “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” with Carleton Carpenter).

Famed creative team Betty Comden and Adolph Green were given the near impossible task of crafting a storyline around a diverse selection of tunes from the 1920s and 1930s. Two songs, “Fit as a Fiddle” and “Moses Supposes,” were new to this production. “Make ‘Em Laugh” was adapted from Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown,” which Gene Kelly performed in The Pirate (1948). The others were part of a catalogue of songs, acquired by MGM, that had been written by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown.

Singin’ in the Rain is filled with references to other films. The story centers around the period from 1927 through 1929 when the industry transitioned from silent films to “talkies.” There are allusions to particular films from that period. For example, the fictional film the characters are producing (titled The Dueling Cavalier) is based on an actual film, titled The Cavalier (1928). Like its fictional counterpart, it began as a silent film but was hastily transformed into a sound film, largely through the addition of poorly dubbed musical numbers. And in the Hollywood premiere sequence, the character Zelda Zanders, known as the “Zip Girl,” is meant to evoke the real-life Clara Bow, known as the “It Girl.”

Just as they borrowed songs and plot devices from earlier movies, co-directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly scavenged the back lot for suitable props from previous MGM movies. Debbie Reynolds’ car is Andy’s old jalopy from the Andy Hardy series. And the mansion where Gene Kelly lives is decorated with furniture and fixtures from Flesh and the Devil (1926).

The movie references extend to the musical numbers and film-within-a-film scenes. The “Gotta Dance” number echoes previous MGM musicals, including Words and Music (1948), The Pirate, Summer Stock (1950), and An American in Paris (1951). Gene Kelly’s musketeer movie at the beginning of the story recalls his earlier film, The Three Musketeers. And when Kelly brings Reynolds onto an empty sound stage and turns on the lights, it mimics his earlier film, Summer Stock.

While the movie references are fun for film buffs, the real joy comes from the memorable songs, exuberant dance numbers, and snappy dialogue. If you haven’t seen it, you’ll be amazed to find how good a movie musical can be. Even if you don’t like movie musicals, you’ll probably like this one. Nothing else comes close.

Singin’ in the Rain
(1952; directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.98 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (DVD)

Tuesday, April 15 at 1:30 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies
Saturday, April 19 at 12:00 a.m. eastern (late Fri. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Safety Last

It’s one of the most enduring images from silent comedy — Harold Lloyd grasps the hand of a massive clock as he hangs perilously over a busy street. The image became an emblem for the daredevil stunts that were popular during the era, in part because Lloyd appears so ordinary and out-of-place. The source for the image is Lloyd’s feature-film Safety Last (1923), which combines genuine thrills with intricately constructed humor.

In his tribute to the great silent comedian, titled “Harold Lloyd: A Rediscovery,” Andrew Sarris wrote that Safety Last:

. . . established for all time the spatial metaphor for an American rise to the top in the midst of a fear of falling. As Lloyd became known as the comedian who would do anything for a laugh, the character he played became known as the jazz-age climber who would do anything to succeed . . .

There is a wildly lyrical moment when Lloyd is swinging crazily from a rope, a moment that Keaton might have extended in time for its feelings of freedom and exhilaration. Lloyd treats this moment as an interruption in the ultimate climb, and quickly returns to the business at hand. On the other hand, Lloyd gives us glimpses of an impervious city, and this makes the spectacle more frighteningly real and majestically social. The spectacular climax of Safety Last undoubtedly influenced Chaplin’s cabin-teetering-on-the-cliff sequence in The Gold Rush (1925).

While Safety Last is one of Lloyd’s best features, it doesn’t blend the comedy and characters as successfully as his later silents, especially The Freshman (1925) and The Kid Brother (1927). The film is split into two parts: everything that leads up to the climb, and the climb itself.

The pre-climb portion provides some memorable gags and extended set pieces. One of the cleverest gags comes at the very beginning when we’re surprised to see Lloyd about to be executed by hanging (a hint at his coming ordeal with the climb). The visual elements are then deconstructed, almost Keaton-like, to show that each cliché — prison bars, rope, priest, and inconsolable mother — was misinterpreted.

Later, we see Lloyd as a sales clerk where he battles (sometimes quite literally) swarms of bargain-obsessed women. It’s one of the most laugh-worthy sequences from the 1920s. This too presages the upcoming climb, suggesting the obstacles he’ll encounter and the ingenuity he’ll need to complete his goal.

Safety Last
(1923; directed by Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Tuesday, April 1 at 6:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Passion of Joan of Arc

If the historical figure at the center of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) could be said to embody uncompromised dedication, the same could be said of the film’s director, Carl Theodore Dreyer. Consisting entirely of close-ups and medium shots, with only the sparest of backgrounds, Dreyer relentlessly focuses in on the characters and conflicts. It may be the closest we’ve ever come to a pure narrative cinema. As you might expect, reactions to this pared-down style vary. Most film historians view this as one of the greatest silent films ever made. I wholeheartedly agree. Others see it as too extreme. You’ll have decide for yourself.

Much of the emotional appeal of this film can be attributed to the remarkable performance by Maria Falconetti as Jeanne d’Arc. It is often cited as the finest performance ever committed to celluloid. In a 1965 interview with Cahiers du Cinéma, Dreyer explains how he chose Falconetti for the part:

I went to see her one afternoon and we spoke together for an hour or two. I had seen her at the theatre. A little boulevard theatre whose name I have forgotten. She was playing there in a light, modern comedy and she was very elegant in it, a bit giddy, but charming. She didn’t conquer me at once and I didn’t have confidence in her immediately. I simply asked her if I could come to see her the next day. And during that visit, we talked. That is when I sensed that there was something in her to which one could make an appeal. Something that she could give; something, therefore that I could take.

For, behind the make-up, the pose, behind that modern and ravishing appearance, there was something. There was a soul behind that facade. If I could see her remove the facade it would suffice me. So I told her that I would very much like, starting the next day, to do a screen test with her. ‘But without make-up,’ I added, ‘with your face completely naked.’

She came, therefore, the next day ready and willing. She had taken off her make-up, we made the tests, and I found on her face exactly what I had been seeking for Joan of Arc: a rustic woman, very sincere, who was also a woman who had suffered. But even so, this discovery did not represent a total surprise for me, for, from our first meeting, this woman was very frank and, always, very surprising.

Dreyer based the script on the original trial transcripts from the year 1431, as well as a novel by Joseph Delteil. The film took a year and a half to complete, in part because Dreyer insisted that the costumes, church, courtyard, gestures, and other aspects of the production were as authentic as possible. The whole construction was painted pink, rather than white, to give it a gray tint against the sky.

According to Ebbe Neergaard’s book Carl Dreyer: A Film Director’s Work, Dreyer demanded absolute silence and banished anyone who wasn’t needed whenever Falconetti had an important scene. Neergaard writes, “She was, as it were, activated into expressing what Dreyer could not show her, for it was something that could only be expressed in action, not speech, and she alone could do it, so she had to help him. And she realized that this could only be done if she dropped all intellectual inhibitions and let her feelings have free access from her subconscious to her facial expression.”

The Passion of Joan of Arc
(1928; directed by Carl Theodore Dreyer; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95

Monday, December 9 at 4:00 a.m. eastern (late Sun. night) on Turner Classic Movies

The Informer

You wouldn’t normally think of John Ford as directing a low-budget art film, but that’s the best way to think of The Informer (1935). According to Joseph McBride’s excellent book Searching for John Ford, the project was rejected by Columbia, Fox, MGM, Paramount, and Warner Bros. before RKO agreed to let Ford make it on a shoestring budget (the final production costs were $242,756). That meant almost no money for sets and only 18 days for shooting.

Rather than fret about the restrictions, Ford, screenwriter Dudley Nichols, and cinematographer Joseph August crafted a visual story that’s defined primarily through shadows, fog, and backlighting. The style is reminiscent of the great silent German expressionist films, especially those of F. W. Murnau, whose work Ford admired.

In his 1943 essay “The Writer and the Film,” Nichols explained how this approach was an excellent match for the storyline:

I had an able mentor as well as a collaborator in the person of John Ford and I had begun to catch his instinctive feeling about the film. I can see now that I sought and found a series of symbols to make visual the tragic psychology of the informer, in this case a primitive man of powerful hungers. The whole action was to be played out in one foggy night, for the fog was symbolic of the groping primitive mind; it really is a mental fog in which he moves. . . .

Though often shy and reserved in real life, Ford could be a hard taskmaster when directing. He had to fight RKO to cast former boxer Victor McLaglen as Gypo, the central character. As McBride explains in his book:

Ford directed McLaglen with cunning calculation, bullying and tricking him into giving a great performance. Since he wanted McLaglen to grope for his lines to convey Gypo’s slow-witted, half-drunken condition, Ford continually changed the schedule to keep McLaglen unfamiliar with his scenes and surreptitiously filmed what the actor thought were rehearsals. He would send McLaglen off to run his lines with cast member J. M. Kerrigan at the nearby Melrose Grotto bar, and then would abruptly call a tipsy McLaglen back to the set to shoot his scenes.

The result is paradoxically realistic and expressionistic. The Informer was a popular success and widely praised by the critics. Though it came in second to Mutiny on the Bounty for the Oscar for Best Picture, Ford took home the Best Director award. In addition, McLaglen won Best Actor, Nichols won Best Screenplay, and Max Steiner won Best Musical Score. Though some of the symbolism may seem heavy handed, and the ending a bit forced, everything else works terrifically. And it doesn’t appear to be made under severe financial restraints. All the choices seem to be natural extensions of the plot.

The Informer
(1935; directed by John Ford; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $59.95 (as part of The John Ford Film Collection)

Friday, December 6 at 10:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

As the follow-up to his most successful silent film (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler), Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) revives one of cinema’s most intriguing criminal masterminds. When we last saw Dr. Mabuse, he was driven insane by the collapse of his criminal empire. Eleven years later, he has progressed from a coma to only being able to write — first with unintelligible scribblings, then with arcane symbols and unrecognizable words, and finally with detailed instructions for carrying out devious crimes and acts of terror.

Meanwhile, we are reintroduced to Inspector Lohmann, the detective from M, Lang’s previous sound film. Lohmann has encountered the doctor’s name in connection with several puzzling investigations. Were these crimes perpetrated by the same group? And how could they involve a criminal mastermind who is physically incapacitated?

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a thrilling detective story, but also a not-so-subtle reproach of Hitler and the Nazis, who had just risen to power. It even foreshadows our own time with a diabolical character who commits terrorist acts — not for financial gain, but to create chaos and fear among the public.

In an interview with Mark Shivas, published in the September 1962 issue of Movie, Lang explains the origin of the project, and how the film was banned in Germany before it could be released:

In ’32, I guess, someone came to me and said, ‘Look, Mr. Lang, we have made so much money with Mabuse. . . ’ I said, ‘Yes, much more than I did. . . .’ He said, ‘Can’t you give us another Mabuse?’ So I started thinking about it and I said, ‘All right, what shall I do? This guy is insane and in an asylum — I cannot make him healthy again. It is impossible.’

So I invented, with the help of Mrs. Von Harbou, the next Mabuse — The Testament of Dr. Mabuse — and then said, ‘Now I am finished. Now I am killing him.’ I had been able to put into the mouth of an insane criminal all the Nazi slogans. When the picture was finished, some henchmen of Dr. Goebbels came to the office and threatened to forbid it. I was very short with them and said, ‘If you think you can forbid a picture of Fritz Lang in Germany, go ahead.’ They did so.

As Lang tells it, a few days after the ban was announced, he was summoned to meet with Goebbels, who told Lang that Hitler was a fan of Die Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1927). Hitler wanted Lang to head up a group that would produce National-Socialistic films for the Nazi party. Lang feigned excitement over the offer, but fled to Paris that night. We have only Lang’s word for the meeting, which is at odds with The Testament of Dr. Mabuse having just been banned for its strong political content.

Whatever the truth, Lang left Germany and went on to have a productive career in Hollywood, directing such classics as Fury (1936), Man Hunt (1941), Ministry of Fear (1945), The Big Heat (1953), While the City Sleeps (1956), and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). He returned to Germany to direct yet another Mabuse film, titled The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1961).

The digitally restored print on the Criterion DVD is ample proof that this is one of Lang’s best films. Originally 124 minutes, the restored version runs 121 minutes and is based on a German Film Institute print, with missing scenes supplied by prints from the Federal Film Archive (Germany) and the Munich Film Museum. In addition to the top-quality restored print, Criterion provides a second disc with the 94-minute French-language version of the film, which Lang directed simultaneously with the German-language version (Lang was fluent in French). Until 1951, it was the only version available for film historians. The second disc also features a 1964 interview with Lang, background on Mabuse’s creator (the character first appeared in print), and a comparison of the German, French, and American-dubbed versions.

If you’re a fan of Hollywood film noir, you’ll feel right at home with this film’s dark and menacing world. And if you’re a fan of detective and crime movies, you’ll enjoy Lohmann’s dogged determination and the intricate layering of the plot.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
(1933; directed by Fritz Lang; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95

Friday, December 6 at 6:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies